“Adrien Brody,” Adrien Brody, and Adrien Brody’s Nose: A Response to Tao Lin’s Response to “Tumblr ‘Shit-Talking’”By Rae Bryant
January 02, 2012
Before attempting to delve into the annals of critical theory, first I must comment on the title, “Adrien Brody,” because I adore Adrien Brody, the actor. I find him and his nose intriguing. I like the shadow-facets of his characters, and how he can bring a full body of darkness to his “good” characters. For this reason, Marie Calloway’s story, “Adrien Brody” (MuuMuu House), spoke to me from the title alone. I also like the aesthetics of modern technology within the landscapes of fictional narratives. I like when writers experiment with this and find new ways to creatively tell a story. I applaud writers who divulge themselves and others in a “real” sense. They are called journalists, memoirists, creative nonfiction writers, and they are to be celebrated when their crafts are true and their intentions are bigger than themselves. Likewise for a fiction writer, the intentions must be equally rigorous, true, and focused on the story. Always the story. To write any other way is masturbatory and easy and pedestrian and sloppy. And when a writer finds herself between the categories of the real and the imaginative, the possibilities are exciting, such as when a writer represents herself as a character within her own narrative—but here there is a backdoor danger. She opens herself for reader responses, not only to her story and craft, but also to her personally, as an entity aside from her art, and this is the place where academic objectivism becomes gray, where critical responses, perhaps more so than in other venues, lose the “gentleman’s code.” Apparently, the code has been lifted in response to “Adrien Brody,” as the code has been lifted for many online debates over form and style and story and writer “legitimacy.” Is it a case of digital diarrhea? Have we lost our good manners when responding to works because it is simply too easy to write whatever pops into our minds and then quickly click ‘send’? Is this an excuse?
Points of method and criticism: The reader-response critical approach, a subjectivist theory, presupposes that any story is a reflection of the reader’s perception; therefore, any response to the story is valid within the context of the reader’s response. I will repeat: any response to the story is valid within the context of the reader’s response. Caveat: as long as the points are taken from the text and evidenced by the text.
Primarily, I’m a student of deconstructionist theory. I like the notion that one analyzes a text purely on the form and craft of the text, but subjectivist and historical critical approaches work well within the landscape of “Adrien Brody,” as the author has entered herself purposefully within the context of the story, and so therefore to exclude the author as part of the story, or, in other words, study it purely through a deconstructionist lens, would exclude a major intention of the story. One might question whether the story wants to be a metafiction. Perhaps, but at no point in time am I convinced that Calloway functions on a self-aware level or from a truly critical perspective within the story. She lacks the voice of it, and so the metafiction, if attempted, has failed aesthetically or was never truly an intention. One more point of method: Calloway introduces feminist theory as an element of discussion, and so therefore it is appropriate to consider the story through psychological and historical lenses.
A little background for anyone who has not been following the “Adrien Brody” and Marie Calloway media spike. Marie Calloway is pseudonymous. She writes herself as a character within the story alongside Adrien Brody, who is a fictionalized version of a real, male, New York writer. To put it another way: according to the story and an article written in the New York Observer, “Adrien Brody” is a fictionalized account of a real incident. Is there anything new about this? No. “Marie Calloway” in the story is a fictionalized version of Marie Calloway the writer of the story. Anything new about this? No. The interest is in the “real incident” involving “Marie Calloway” soliciting sex from “Adrien Brody,” an older male writer in New York. Would this be new or exciting if the incident were completely fictional? No. Is it slightly more interesting because the writer, Marie Calloway, is a young, cute, sexually promiscuous woman who is writing explicitly about her sex solicitation of an older male writer in New York? Yes.
Here is a base pulse point: Marie Calloway lies on a bed while finger painting her face with Adrien Brody’s ejaculate. Here is an academic point: Marie Calloway attempts to have a smart discourse with Adrien Brody about Marxism, literature, and feminism. Here is a cringe point: Marie Calloway cries and whines in the end when Adrien Brody, a man she’s just met and solicited sex from, pulls his penis out of her, leaves her on the bed, puts his pants on, and says goodbye.
It is difficult to see Calloway as self-realized. She lacks an internal and external discussion that would otherwise take her character past sex object and into some deeper version of herself. Calloway is “nail polish and thigh high socks” and sophomoric philosophizing. She is ejaculate on her face. Is the reader to accept that Calloway’s shallowness, her act of spreading ejaculate around her cheeks and forehead, face painting, as gritty reality and therefore necessary because the writer may have really lain on a bed spreading ejaculate across her face?
Many women have lain with ejaculate on their faces without telling the story because they were afraid or too traditional or simply unconvinced that ejaculate on the face was enough to hold a scene. Finger painting ejaculate on one’s face is certainly promising but easily written for an immature man’s benefit. Ejaculate must be necessary to move past its childishness. I must admit, when reading the story I called into question the details of the face painting. To envision a woman, even a young, stupid woman, finger painting her face with sperm, requires sustained disbelief. We are to believe Calloway, the character and possibly the writer, lay on a bed while essentially a strange man watched her paint herself with a sperm mask. It would take a bit of doing and focus to move the ejaculate around, avoid the eye areas, and if she did not, wouldn’t the eyelids stick? How far did she go into the nostril? These are the details that plague me, and it occurs to me how darkly comedic the scene could have been if Calloway had truly contemplated the absurdity of the behavior, taken a moment to “see” herself—but she does not.
And wouldn’t it seem awkward or strange to watch a woman doing this? Would it not strike a man, even a man with fetishes, to watch a woman finger painting herself with his ejaculate? If it turns him on, I would suspect he would have more range in gesture than a “smile.” Might there not have been more awkwardness than face tightening? This and more call into question the reality of the story. Is the face painting a fictionalized version of the incident? Is the face shooting a fictionalized version of the incident? As I try to discern the “real” from the “fiction,” I must ask if the story holds my attention based on story or the background to the story or what the story might have been. Is this the direction of literature? Truly, I could see an interesting scene with a woman finger painting herself with ejaculate. It could be really and truly absurd in a Swiftian way, but the absurdism and the satire do not fully play out here. The scene stops with a smile and a bar of soap and a covered mirror and not enough interesting monologue to flesh it. How I would have liked to have seen Calloway view her reflection at that moment. It might have given her a more complicated and interestingly awkward self-concept, which is the reason to write experiences at twenty-one, but then I question whether she was twenty-one. Her language, emotionally, speaks of high school girl seeking father figure to me, which brings me to the first psychological criticism, Freudian.
Here is “Adrien Brody” through a Freudian lens: Calloway wanted to fuck her father. She flew to New York City to fuck a version of her father who has a name similar to an actor with an interesting nose and a lot of talent. Neither Calloway nor the actor nor the nose are real, but rather, projected versions of her father, whom she has never grown out of wanting to fuck. Next…
Lacanian criticism provides something of a more promising canvas for considering Calloway’s narrative, prose style, and structure. We can at least break the language down and analyze the parts of Calloway and her lover and the poor, betrayed nineteen-year-old virgin, Patrick, whom Calloway has fucked and jilted and never confronted. We consider the missing pieces of the story as evidence of Calloway’s Lacanian or unrequited desires, how their absences feed and drive the narrative, and the potential of this in Calloway’s voice is certainly evident; however, it is again unfulfilled because the missing pieces are the pieces that might have given the story fully realized narratives, characters, and voices—as opposed to a confessional journalistic shtick. And remember the confessional journalism is form, not style, because we are asked to accept this piece as a version of the writer’s reality—but no, it’s fiction, but no, it happened. Really. Pick one. So the voided pieces, the voided desires, are the essential points we would need in order to view the depths of Calloway’s motivations and internal conflicts that would otherwise drive the rest of the story, such as how Calloway would handle a confrontation with Patrick, especially since Calloway implicates Patrick in her tryst in a more than ancillary way. Patrick’s involvement wants to be more, so we can see Calloway face herself, but we’re left with texting and a girl’s promiscuity and “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god” aesthetic. To introduce Patrick so prominently and then avoid him might be a comment on Calloway’s Lacanian desire to avoid the discussion of, What the hell are you doing? Except we never truly get to this resolution in the end, and I’m not convinced the story does enough on its own to suggest it as a reader-perceived dénouement. Still, this would all be fine if settled within a well-rendered confessional journalism framework of character perceptions and realities. But I must admit to having difficulty settling into a Taylor Swift dialogue, both interior and exterior.
And then he texted me.
My hands began to tremble.
“Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, oh my god…” I repeated over and over.
“Back in city. This is Adrien Brody. Must determine where to meet. Where are you?”
I immediately forwarded it to Patrick and closed my phone shut. (Calloway)
A moment on structure. While I applaud Calloway’s unrefined style on a theoretical level, I have difficulty anchoring into the application of it here. If we are to accept action beats as traditional structures, immediately preceding or following dialogue as in the above excerpted third line, then what is the significance of the second line? Is the clause “My hands began to tremble” so well-turned that it requires a line break and the reader’s attention? Couldn’t a twenty-one year old character, who is a writer—a writer—find a more interesting style of colloquialism for her narrative voice? I’m not saying Ellen Page level, but something memorable for its color rather than laziness and Eighties-style “like.” Also, do we need the “over and over” after “repeated”? Do we need the “shut” after “closed my phone”? Calloway is a writer, writing this story, literally and imaginatively. The issue, for me, isn’t the use of informal “teenage” prose, style, and structure as a character’s voice, but rather having to live with it throughout an entire story as the only viewpoint. When offered in a new and interesting way, I can appreciate a young woman’s characterization rendered at a teenage, emotionally stunted level; however, the extended use of it here does not hold my attention stylistically or conceptually but rather in a “is this really what everyone is talking about?” kind of way. This stunted voice is the lone internal and external point of view, essentially making it the style and concept for all character arcs. Calloway is no J.D. Salinger/Holden Caulfield. So this then begs the question: Is “Adrien Brody” really a literary work for an adult audience? Or is it truly a piece of confessional journalism trying to be adult-oriented but told in a voice intended for young adults? Does this piece have an audience?
Yes, it does. Jungian criticism suggests readers share common histories and structures, and so readers look for archetypes most familiar to them within stories. Likewise, the voice in “Adrien Brody” shares a common history and structure with a text and its “Oh my god” readership. It certainly shares a thread with some writers today, namely the Tao Lin-ites. I would suggest, however, that a story might seek some sort of humanity and commonality past its sub-demographic style and concept in order for it to be considered “literature.” I applaud the inclusion of text and “Oh my god” characterizations and perceptions within any story that calls for it, and Calloway certainly has this voice. But to limit the aesthetic of the entire story to this voice is to limit the story. It is the writer’s craft to sit with a story until the full weight of its voice comes through. If the full weight of a story’s voice is text and “Oh my god,” perhaps the full realization of the story’s characters is still hiding somewhere in the midst.
Example: When Calloway shops for nail polish and lingerie, many women, young and old and in between can relate to this, but a woman with some spark of intelligence certainly contemplates the necessity of nail polish and lingerie as she shops for it. When a woman buys a gorgeous pair of three-inch heels, dare I say she would have a conversation with herself about the logistics of wearing them? Some women laugh at themselves. Some rationalize that heels are good for the calves. Some justify heels as pretty luxuries and necessities in the face of expectation and a ‘woman on woman’ fight for the perfect man—but still, we have the discourse. We see the irony and hypocrisy. The most interesting discourse happens when our hypocrisies, our surfaces and luxurious, competitive selves win.
Calloway, as a character within this narrative, must take on these considerations if she is to be even slightly complicated in a “third wave feminism” way. She says she’s a writer. She speaks about ideas she’s learned in college. She must have a brain in there somewhere. If neither the protagonist nor author, written as protagonist, are complicated in a self-realization way, why is the story necessary? Calloway seeks to bridge this self-realization and academic prowess by trying to have philosophical discussions with her Adrien Brody, but they are pedestrian and ill-rendered, something every writer has seen since first year creative writing workshops. If this is the intended aesthetic, then the piece is written specifically for a writing crowd who remembers what it’s like to think we are smarter than we are. But we already know Calloway is this version of us. She’s already proven it repeatedly throughout the narrative, so what do the “academic” dialogues between Calloway and Brody add to the story? Oh, right. This all happened. The story elements don’t need to be necessary. They happened. But where are the facts? Oh, well, it’s fiction.
A short aside on Adrien Brody’s nose: Where is it? Maybe I missed it, but as a reader, when I see Adrien Brody in a title, I want a memorable, smartly rendered response to the nose, even if veiled. This is what might have made the use of the actor’s name necessary and interesting. Brody’s nose is what makes him visually stunning on the screen, not so much his gangliness. Without the nose, he would be another skinny, talented, pretty actor. The nose gives him a visual edge. I could stare at his nose for days. The nose has become archetypal for me like magical face powers, ugly-beautiful. It deserves a cape and boots and shit like that. Barbra Streisand, W.C. Fields, Ringo Starr. Hell, even Gogol wrote about a nose. The lack of nose in “Adrien Brody,” in my Jungian perspective, was a missed opportunity. Of course, the nose and its archetypal tradition may be before Calloway’s time. Or perhaps I’m supposed to take away an “as plain as the nose on her face” aesthetic, but I would hate to think that on top of everything else, the story hinges on a reader-perceived cliché. Or maybe it was just a case of an editor suggesting the author replace the “real” character with a celebrity at the last minute.
Back to “third wave feminism.” It is the internal conflict of ‘woman as sex’ and ‘woman as thinker’ that makes a story about ‘woman and sex’ interesting. When Calloway chooses to buy the nail polish and lingerie and paint herself with ejaculate, she is essentially betraying a deeper, more logical part of herself, a common and familiar betrayal for many women—but Calloway does not introduce this into the narrative. That Calloway comes to some realization at the end, while she’s crying and whining on the bed, is not so interesting to me. I want her to knowingly and deeply abuse herself along the way while making traditional, whorish choices. One might call it Femogyny or a female’s objectification of herself, and Calloway would have been so beautifully broken in this capacity. And yet we never truly get to see her there because the extent of Calloway’s self-efficacy along the way is “Oh my god,” and by the way, I know the words “third wave feminism.”
From a Jungian perspective, Calloway’s use of feminism while either avoiding or not knowing enough to authoritatively write to the history and structure is difficult acceptance for her prescribed readership. Or perhaps it is Lacanian conceit. Calloway desires the knowledge she doesn’t have. But this is a joke on Calloway, not with Calloway. Yes, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, Mary Wollstonecraft… They are all rolling.
I cringe in applying a Marxist lens to “Adrien Brody,” but I’ll try. Some might view the male and female positions in society and art as still being sectioned into something like “classes.” Truly, the divide has not yet been filled, so I would agree in a sectioning of gender in regards to economy, art, education, politics, and so on. Marxist theory might suggest many views in regards to “Adrien Brody,” but the one that comes to mind is how the story represents a particular section of society now. Does “Adrien Brody” speak to gender and class, art, economy, education, politics, in a way that reaches beyond the aesthetic of its point of view character, this feminist whore who denies self-realization and abhors writers and their “…bragging…ambition…how they want to become rich and famous through writing”? I’m not convinced Calloway’s comment on writers is true and self-realized or simply a veiled reflection of the expressed sentiment. It reads as a comment on everyone but herself and this strikes me as flat and unfulfilled, especially when given from a writer’s perspective. I don’t know if Calloway’s self-realization, in the end, truly speaks to the depth of her experiences. She lies on the bed, crying. This is a child to me, crying because her candy has been taken away, not a woman who finally realizes what her own choices have taken away. A child does not have the wherewithal to understand the consequences of her actions, and therefore, this makes Adrien Brody emotionally pedophiliac by some standard. Yet, he is no Humbert Humbert.
One might consider it all an absurdist satire, a comment on the state of writers and gender and art and society, but then I ask if the story operates on a Candide or O level? I would suggest that, though it wants to, the plot doesn’t really take the reader into absurd or satirical places. The dialogue attempts to explore gender relations and philosophies on surface beauty versus intellectual importance (as evidenced by ejaculate on the face), but it’s all a forced dialogue that is unbelievable between two people brought together by sex. Not enough negative space between them, this older male writer and this twenty-one-year-old. And on the other hand, the landscape is too common to meet its suggestion of absurdism. Young woman writer travels to New York to fuck an older, more accomplished writer based on some fantasy of really great, artistic sex? An artistic melding? The opportunity to have an older, male writer confirm her? Or just to fuck? Or maybe that it’s sex with an older writer in New York as told through texting? If you want to publish a story in New York, then you are more likely to publish a story if it is about fucking in New York. There’s nothing new or breathtaking about any of this conceptually, and the texting doesn’t hold enough artistic interest to make the story necessary from a postmodern or structural basis. This sex and art and “the big man” has been a central female narrative for generations of master writers, prosaists and poets alike. Shelley, Chopin, Wharton, Plath, Bradstreet, Atwood, Oates, Beattie, Akers, Gaitskill… Did we need “Adrien Brody,” too? I love to see a classic narrative brought into a contemporary landscape when it’s well done, but the landscape must be worth the story.
We’ll end on what is probably the most important critical lens as related to “Adrien Brody”: Feminist. Only because Calloway seems to see herself as the whore feminist—or at least she’s been painted as such by other readers. For me, this is somewhat laughable. Not the whore part. Many third wave feminists and those who call themselves postfeminists would accept however a woman would choose to identify. The issue with “Adrien Brody” as Feminist art/commentary is that the story doesn’t push any edges in this regard. So Calloway lets a man come on her face. She considers not washing it away with soap. She throws out terms like subjectivism and third wave feminism. These are not the conflicts of edge and introspect. They might be if given a larger framework, as opposed to a first-year discussion on third wave feminism, but instead, the story is written on the edges that have already been pushed by voices with more intricate language and more fully developed characters. “Adrien Brody” lies flat and within the safe borders, behind the lines. It’s the equivalent of a war correspondent’s article about a scouting detail when the correspondent has never seen the front line but has only read about it—but she did fuck a general, once, in the mess tent.
Marie Calloway goes to New York in pursuit of sex with an older male writer. The most provocative part of this would have been her realization of her self-objectification and struggling with this expressively so that the reader could struggle expressively with her. Sleeping with an older male writer, letting him “[shoot] a load” on her face is one of the easiest things for a young female writer—especially, an escort… oh right, this is fiction—with low self-esteem and an ambition complex to do. Where is the challenge? The conflict? From a Feminist perspective, why is this choice Calloway makes important to me and our gender? How does it push, in new ways, at the comfort levels of what women and men see as gender and society? And what does the “real” in this story add to the story other than a gimmick to make people think that Calloway, the fake name for the author and protagonist, pursued Adrien Brody, the important writer with a famous actor’s name? “I raised my head, and I saw Adrien Brody was looking at me. I could tell he had seen the whole thing.” The whole thing being the loss of a shoe? Self-doubt as to beauty and first-impressions? Is this the “whole thing”? That he “saw” her? Or maybe the whole thing is the sexual encounter.
He moved so he was on top of me. He caressed and then sucked on my breasts. Then he moved to rub his cock between my breasts which was funny to me.
Oh, serious intellectuals are the same as 13 year old boys.
Then he moved his head down until it was between my thighs.
He went down on me for a few minutes, and I faked moaned, pretending to enjoy it.
“Can you like, finger me while you do that?”
So he did, and then I started to enjoy it.
He came up and I kissed him, which I could tell he found exciting.
Does the turn of sex between Calloway and Brody truly rest on the link between his boyishness and intellectualism? Or is it that Calloway would kiss Brody with the lingering smell and taste of her own genitalia on his lips? Is this new and exciting? No. Writing sex is a craft all its own. Writing sex as literary is probably one of the most difficult forms within the spectrum. The language Calloway attempts is a cross-section of stunted self-objectified woman and intellectual subjectivist, and falls short of self-efficacy. Where does Calloway’s self-realization rest? In the sperm on her face? The whininess in her voice when she asks Brody to sit with her rather than read his emails?
If the story had been written purely journalistically, a Cather or Hemingway-esque minimalism, then the reader would experience Calloway’s point of view through gesture and action and be allowed a broader interpretation, which could have certainly offered more, depending on the reader’s aesthetic and life experiences, but Calloway constantly gives her opinions and internalized viewpoints on ejaculation and shopping and first-year feminism. She is able to externalize discussions, yet not able to have these discussions with herself. This might be an interesting concept if I cared about her, but her voice is that of teeny-bopper-“like…yuckey”-sophomoric-intellectual.
I see possibilities for the devices Calloway plays at. The “real” and fictional play. The attempts to write sex with a “real” aesthetic. The behind-the-lines attempts to discourse on gender are admirable and should be continued, but I don’t see where this story is necessary in a literary or artistic or pushing past the gender lines sense. “Text” writing, for text writing’s sake, is not a form that speaks necessity to me. A stunted female voice, as both internal and external, in this example, is not interesting to me artistically, but rather as a point of ‘this is on the right track but not where you end’ critical definition. It can be argued that the story is a reflection on time and place within our artistic “now,” but the now factor is not enough to sustain a story as literature, especially when the “now” is really reflective of so many stories already told with tighter craft and more complicated resonances.
My initial interest in this story was through its title, “Adrien Brody.” I wanted it to speak to me on multiple levels and was saddened when it did not. I was saddened when it hit me as a critical “don’t do this” example for a first-year student’s study. And I was not surprised to see a divide of critical responses. This may be a writer to watch after she has more time with her craft, but “Adrien Brody” was not ready to launch, and this is sad. Very sad. Because with further exploration and development and a more fully realized voice, this unfulfilled story might have been truly great. Marie Calloway and Adrien Brody—the writer, the actor, and the actor’s nose—deserved greatness.
Note to readers: For those who have yet to read the 15,000-word story, you can find it here. You might also be interested in reading Tao Lin’s take here. Or Roxane Gay’s take on the matter, which you can read here. And Stephen Elliott interviewed Marie Calloway here. —TNB Editors